By Sarah Lazare, Courage to Resist for AlterNet.org
U.S. Army Specialist André Shepherd, who went AWOL after serving in Iraq, has applied for asylum in Germany. Shepherd refused military service because he is morally opposed to the Iraq War.
“It is a sickening feeling to realize that I took part in what was basically a daily slaughter of a proud people,” said Shepherd at a press conference announcing his application for asylum. “I am remorseful for my contribution to these heinous acts, and I swear that I will never make these mistakes again.”
Sign the appeal to the German government and donate
to André’s defense via Connection e.V. (Germany)
Shepherd, who has been living underground in Germany for nearly two years, applied for refugee status on November 26th on the grounds that the Iraq War is illegal.
This makes Shepherd the first Iraq War Veteran to apply for refugee status in Europe. His case may have profound implications for the growing ranks of troops who are refusing to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Who is André Shepherd?
Shepherd did not set out in life intending to build a career in the military. He grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and went to school at Kent State University, where he studied computer science. He graduated in 2000 in the midst of the dot-com bubble burst, and he found himself unable to get a job in his field. Shepherd embarked on a litany of odd jobs to get by, including working fast food, stuffing envelopes, couriering, and selling vacuum cleaners. Yet it often wasn’t enough to cover his basic living expenses.
In the summer of 2003, Shepherd ran into an army recruiter who told him of the army’s benefits: free travel, healthcare, and free housing. “At the time, I was living in my car, so that sounded appealing,” said Shepherd.
On January 27, 2004, Shepherd decided to join the army. “At that time, I didn’t have the knowledge I have now. All I had was pretty much what the mass media was telling me and what the Bush Administration was saying on the mass media,” said Shepherd.
Shepherd was trained in Apache helicopter repair and sent first to Achach Germany, then to Iraq, where he was stationed from September 2004 to February 2005.
“While I was in Iraq, the first thing I noticed was when the local population would come on our base. Usually when you liberate a people, they are overjoyed to see you, they are happy to see you, they would welcome you with open arms,” said Shepherd. “When I would see the Iraqi population, they didn’t look like they were in any way happy to see us. They looked like either they were afraid of me or if I turned my back without my weapon, they would probably want to kill me. That started me thinking.”
Shepherd started talking to soldiers on his base and was shocked to learn that many did not understand why they were there and did not see any benefit. He began doing research and started seeing “inconsistencies between what the Bush Administration was saying and what was actually happening.”
Eventually, Shepherd began analyzing his own contribution to a war that was making less and less sense to him. “My job appeared harmless until one factors in the amount of death and destruction those helicopters cause to civilians in Iraq,” he said.
“Once I pretty much figured out the truth, that this war was nothing more than a fraud, not only on the American people but the entire world, I resolved within myself that I would no longer go on another deployment to Iraq,” he said in an interview with Courage to Resist, one of the many U.S.-based organizations rallying support for him.
Refusal to deploy
On April 11, 2007, Shepherd went on leave to southern Germany. “I made a decision within that two week period that I would have to walk away from the service rather than get myself killed or get someone else killed,” he said.
He carried out that decision and lived underground in Germany until going public with his request for asylum last week. During this time, he had no contact with his family, in order to protect them being implicated in his case. Now that he is open about his situation, Shepherd is back in touch with his family. He says they are worried about what could happen to him but supportive of his decision.
Shepherd has been met with a groundswell of support for his decision to refuse further military service. The Military Counseling Network, a German organization that counsels American soldiers who are questioning going to war, has been instrumental in helping him go public with his case, and his refusal to serve has garnered international press.
“The peace movement in Germany is rallying to support Shepherd’s cause. We are working on an appeal to the German government, collecting signatures and other forms of support, and there is definite interest in all parts of the country,” said Tim Hubert of the Military Counseling Network in Germany.
Shepherd is also a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), an organization comprised of over 1,300 U.S. veterans who have served since September 11, 2001 and call for immediate pullout from Iraq.
“I think it is very courageous of him to step away from the military and the situation and prevent himself from being drawn into a war crime,” said Mathis Chiroux, an IVAW member who is currently refusing orders to reactivate into the military and deploy to Iraq. “I certainly hope the german government responds to his request and allows him to stay.”
Significance of Shepherd’s case
Several factors lean in favor of André’s bid for asylum. The German government came out against the Iraq War, a majority of Germans are opposed to that conflict, and not a single German soldier has been sent to fight in Iraq. Furthermore, the German Federal Courts ruled that the Iraq War violates international law. A European Union regulation guarantees refugee status for soldiers who are fleeing military service in wars that have been declared illegal by international standards. And in 2005, the German Federal Court ruled that a German army officer could not be demoted for refusing to develop a computer he feared would be used by the United States to aid the Iraq War effort.
“The Nuremberg Trials took place here, and the notion of all soldiers taking personal responsibility is widely respected in Germany,” said Tim Hubert. “That said, German exports and the greater economy are very financially dependent on the United States, and the political repercussions of granting asylum would definitely be an affront to a long-standing friendship, making André’s case an uphill battle.”
Germany is home to roughly 60,000 U.S. soldiers, and Germany’s airspace has been used by the United States since the beginning of the Iraq War. “It’s time for the German government to come down off its fence and pick a side, and I think André is offering them a unique opportunity to stand up for the Geneva Conventions,” said Hubert.
Shepherd joins a growing number of U.S. troops are refusing to fight in the so-called “war on terror.” Army soldiers are resisting service at the highest rate since 1980, with an 80 percent increase in desertions, defined as absence for more than 30 days, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to the Associated Press. An estimated 200 Iraq War resisters are residing in Canada, and over 150 resisters have come out publicly against the war. Some cases, such as Lt. Ehren Watada, the first army officer to refuse to deploy to Iraq, have garnered widespread support and attention.
Robin Long, an Iraq War resister who applied for asylum in Canada in 2004, was rejected by Canadian authorities this September and deported into U.S. military custody, making him the only war resister to be deported from Canada since the Vietnam War. Dozens of other cases are still making their way through the appeals process in Canadian courts.
Many applaud Shepherd’s decision to refuse deployment and apply for asylum, despite the uncertainty he faces. “I think it is important that soldiers are examining the conflicts they are asked to fight in and are making a decision to not fight based on their values and sense of morals,” said Andrew Gorby, who was discharged from the Army in May 2007 as a conscientious objector and now works for the Center on Conscience and War, a counseling organization that works to defend the rights of conscientious objectors.”It is powerful that here you have a soldier making a decision not to fight regardless of the consequences.”
Sarah Lazare is Project Coordinator for Courage to Resist, an organization that supports the troops who refuse to fight. To learn more about the case of André Shepherd and other war resisters, please visit www.couragetoresist.org.